Hitting the ‘book’ button for flights is one of my favourite things – bringing the promise of an adventure to lands afar. But the journey to that button isn’t always simple, and needs a bit of research and consideration. A flight is often the biggest cost of a trip and you’ll save a lot of money if you get a good deal. But finding those best flight deals can be tricky. The airlines don’t make it easy! I’m a geek when it comes to finding cheap flights, so here are my tops tips, gained from more than ten years’ of travelling. Use them to find a cheap flight, a save heaps on your next trip. But be warned, it can take a dose of detective work and patience!
What type of flight ticket should I buy?
Should I buy a RTW ticket?
Round-the-world (RTW) flights can offer fantastic value for money, but they come with lots of conditions that may not suit you. Many airlines are part of alliances, and a RTW ticket allows you to buy a ticket with one airline and use it on their partners’ flights too. For example, British Airways is part of the One World alliance, which has 15 members including Quantas, Iberia and American Airlines. With a RTW ticket, you generally start and finish in the same city, and the ticket normally lasts for one year. Each alliance has different rules and ways of doing their RTW tickets, but they are normally segment-based or mileage-based. For a mileage-based ticket, you buy a certain number of miles (normally ranging from 26,000 – 49,000) and there is no limit on the number of flights. For a segment-based ticket, you buy a certain number of segments. Each segment buys you one flight no matter how long that flight is. The segment-based option can work out well if you maximise your long-haul flights.
RTW tickets allow differing degrees of flexibility for changing dates and sometimes even destinations. Always check to see if/how much added cost there is to make such changes. If you’re pretty set on your itinerary then a RTW ticket can be a very cost-effective option. You also get to make your decisions up front, which saves the stress of researching and booking flights on the road.
However, one of the limitations of RTW flights is that they don’t include budget airlines as these aren’t members of any of the big alliances. This means it can be cheaper to book a ticket made up of single/return budget flights, rather than a single RTW ticket.
When I first went travelling on my gap year, I booked a round-the-world (RTW) flight ticket, which was good value at the time and worked well for my fixed itinerary. But, for my most recent trips, I opted for individual flights as I needed greater flexibility or my travel was localised to one region.
Booking flights on the go
If you’re unsure where / how long you want to travel, and you want to create your travel plans as you go along, then booking flights on the go is likely a better option. It’s sometimes more expensive than a RTW ticket, but this depends on where you’re going. For example, if you’re travelling in Asia, airlines like AirAsia offer incredibly good value for money. You can get a cheap flight to a hub like Bangkok / Kuala Lumpur and then book onwards travel from there (either overland or with a budget airline).
Return flights, singles and multiple destination tickets
It is nearly always cheaper to buy a return flight than two singles, unless you’re booking with a budget airline in which case it costs the same. And sometimes a return flight is cheaper than a single! Always check this if you need a single flight somewhere (it doesn’t matter if you miss the return leg of the journey, plus you’ll collect the extra miles!).
If you know when you want to return home and you know you’ll be sticking to one region, it’s a good idea to buy a return flight. For example, when Steve and I went to Bali for five months, there was a chance we’d go somewhere else in Asia if Bali didn’t suit us. However, despite this chance, we bought a return flight to Bali as it was significantly cheaper than two singles and we knew we could fly back to Bali very cheaply from almost anywhere else in Asia.
When we did our 18-month trip around South America, we didn’t know where we go from our initial stop in Rio. A return flight to Rio wasn’t an option because return tickets are normally only valid for a year and we knew we’d be away longer than that. In this case, the best option was to buy a single flight to Rio and use a mixture of overland travel and individual flights to make our way to Mexico.
You can also buy multiple-destination tickets with one airline/alliance. These are somewhere between a RTW and a return, and they are also often cheaper than singles. One great thing about them is that you can combine them with overland travel/budget airline. For example, you could buy a ticket from London to Buenos Aires, and Mexico City to London. To get from Buenos Aires to Mexico City, you could use a mixture of single flights and overland travel. Like returns, these tickets are generally only valid for a year, so aren’t suitable for longer trips. They also don’t have to start and end in the same place, which gives more flexibility than most RTW tickets.
An example of this in action
An example of all of this in action is the flights I booked for our honeymoon to South Africa and Mauritius. The route we needed to take was: London – Cape Town – Johannesburg – Mauritius – London. I fiddled with different option for a while and this was the cheapest:
- A return flight to Cape Town (without using the return)
- An internal flight from Cape Town to Johannesburg
- A multi-leg trip from Johannesburg-Mauritius-London
The return flight to Cape Town was cheaper than a single to London. And the multi-leg journey at the end was cheaper than buying two singles. As I warned you, finding the best combination can take patience!
Also note that some countries will only allow you to enter if you have booked an onward flight elsewhere. Sometimes the best solution in cases like that is to book a fully-refundable, cheap ticket and then cancel it once you’re in. Always check the rules ahead of time.
How to get the best price for flights?
My favourite search engine for flights is Skyscanner (and no, I’m not being paid to say that!). I always use this to get a baseline price and then compare it with other sites such as Vayama, Momondo, and Travelocity. Skyscanner isn’t good for multiple-destination tickets so I head to Momondo first for those.
Skyscanner has a few very useful functions. Firstly, you can choose to search for flights for an entire month. For example, you can search for flights from London to Berlin for all of July. This produces a handy graph of flight prices that helps you to see if there are certain days that are cheaper than others. Sometimes flight prices vary wildly from day to day so it can be worth arranging your travel plans to take advantage of the cheap flights.
Another useful function is the everywhere search. This allows you to search for flights from one destination to anywhere in the world. For example, if you search for flights from Singapore to Everywhere, you’ll get a handy list of countries and the price it costs to fly there from Singapore. I used this a lot when living in London and looking for inspiration for cheap weekend city breaks.
A useful hack for finding good deals on Skyscanner
The everywhere search on Skyscanner is also a useful hack for saving money and devising your own route. For example, I once wanted to fly to Bangkok from London. First of all I did a simple search for single flights from Bangkok to London. The price was around £300. I then did a search from London to ‘Everywhere’, and from Bangkok to ‘Everywhere’. I wanted to see if combining two of those flights would be cheaper. I found that to fly from Bangkok to Norway cost £200, and from London to Norway cost £30. I checked and confirmed that Norway to Bangkok was also £200. This meant that I could save £70 by going via Norway. When doing something like this, it’s important to weigh up the pros and cons. For example, you need to check the flight times because if they don’t match up, you may end up having to stay a night in the layover country. That may end up negating the saving, or it could be a good thing if you fancy exploring that place.
Clear your cache
Once when Steve and I were both searching for flights on separate computers, we noticed that despite using the same website, we were seeing different prices. This is because airline websites and flight search engines often return higher prices for flights you’ve previously searched for. They know you want them so they raise the price. Cheeky! To get round this, you can simply clear your cache.
Air miles and loyalty schemes
Most airlines have loyalty schemes that allow you to collect points / air miles. It’s a good idea to sign up to these schemes as the points will add up into free flights. They also often offer deals and incentives. For example, I’m a member of the British Airways Executive Club and if I book a flight for the month of my birthday, I get bonus points (avios).
I’m no expert in air miles and loyalty schemes but there are some people who are pros at hacking the system. Nomadic Matt has useful a guide on how to be a travel hacker. The tips are most relevant to a US audience as there seem to be more loyalty schemes to hack into there. However, Matt also handily interviewed a UK travel hacker so there are more tips in there.
Look out for offers
Finally, keep an eye out for good offers. Lots of airlines offer sales that can save you a lot off your ticket price. Again, Nomadic Matt is good at spotting these so I suggest signing up to his email newsletter, which offers a round-up of current deals. Airfare Watchdog also has a good newsletter. The site monitors airfares and will alert you when deals come up for the routes you’re looking for.
And my latest find is a website called Secret Flying, which collates deals from around the internet. It finds some really incredible deals. I now don’t book anything without checking it first.
Other useful advice
How to choose an air travel search site via The New York Times
How to get cheap flights on the internet via Y Travel Blog (one for the Aussies)
How to buy a RTW plane ticket (that kicks ass) via Chris Guillebeau via Tim Ferris
Proof of onward travel – a story and a solution via Wandering Earl
Some of the links on this page are affiliate links so if you book through them I receive a little commission. Thank you in advance if you choose to do that. This site is first and foremost a labour of love, but every little helps.